It’s fair to say that Joe Sullivan, owner of Fishtown’s Palm Auto, is something of a collector.
On the first floor of his Frankford Avenue home, a variety of restored — and others with work underway — vintage automobiles fills the large garage.
Here, the 63-year-old Sullivan can proudly show off the award-winning 1935 Ford Tudor that he restored with his son, and a pristine 1964 Pontiac convertible that moviemakers borrowed for a few scenes in the 1998 film Stealing Home, which starred Jodie Foster.
But this isn’t his most extensive collection.
That collection, which he has passionately amassed over six decades, is upstairs and fills almost his entire home.
Sullivan’s mission has been to amass an enormous collection of model trains. But now, he says, he’s ready to sell the whole thing.
ldquo;I’ve always had trains, wherever I lived … I get up every morning and sit with a cup of coffee and watch the trains for a while,” Sullivan said as he offered a tour of his collection during November’s First Friday celebration along Frankford Avenue.
After so many years, he’s ready to sell the collection because of one simple reality. “It’s time for me to hang it up,” he said.
When you enter Sullivan’s home, you’re introduced to nothing less than a small world that functions at the throw of a switch.
Die-cast airplanes dangle over a papier-mâché ravine, plastic waitresses forever offer painted hamburgers at the windows of vehicles parked at a small diner, and it’s all surrounded by train tracks.
While his hands worked a network of switches and dials linked to the miniature countryside by a winding mass of wires, Sullivan almost seemed like a musician sitting down to perform.
He stepped to one side of the display and flipped a switch that brought up lights on the table, then, as he stood at his control panels, and with the mere flick of a wrist, the entire city whirred to life.
As he pointed to a small firehouse, lights turned on and, through a small window, a plastic firefighter could be seen sliding down a fireman’s pole. Outside, a small dog let out a recorded bark as the firehouse doors opened and a fire truck slid out on a track.
ldquo;Here, wait, look at this,” said a smiling Sullivan as he pointed to a small green satchel dangling from a post near the train track.
ldquo;We are going to pick up that green bag and drop off a white one,” he said.
And, sure enough, at Sullivan’s command, a train sped by the post and plucked the green bag, leaving a small plastic white bag in its place.
Along the tracks is a town with a diner and firehouse as well as a school, church and playground. A small marching band is on little Main Street. A replica of Philadelphia’s historic Route 23 trolley — the same design as Girard Avenue’s Route 15 trolley — circles the city center.
He wanted his trolley to be the Route 23 because his mother used to love to ride it around the city when she was young, Sullivan explained.
“It went everywhere. People used to come to the city and ride it on the weekends because it just went all over,” he said.
At one end of the track, Sullivan even created a seedy side of town, complete with hand-painted graffiti and what he called “ladies of the evening” standing outside a motel.
ldquo;I get all kinds of reactions when people see this stuff,” Sullivan said as he walked around the display. “I love showing it.”
All around the room, there are train sets that Sullivan has shelved — including his favorite, a Northern Pacific set that he never runs. These days, he can’t even keep count of how many trains are in the collection, and he said it’s hard to put a price on the whole thing.
He has a few sets from the 1930s and he still has the original boxes for most of the trains, so he believes they are relatively valuable.
For years, Sullivan’s collection has existed as something of a hidden gem on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown.
Almost every month, he opens his home for the First Friday community festival to allow residents and other visitors to check out his collection. He promotes it by opening his garage and displaying one of his vintage trains.
Folks always want to see everything in operation.
ldquo;I had a kid up here who challenged me to make every train run,” he said. “He just didn’t believe that everything worked. He got me, though, because one train I couldn’t get to work. But that’s not too bad, is it?”
As he looked out over his collection, Sullivan talked about his history in the military. He was a U.S. Air Force crew chief and mechanic who worked on F-111 planes. In fact, he added, working on model trains as a child later helped him as a mechanic, thanks to having learned the fundamentals of wiring and how to clean and maintain electronics.
Now he’s ready to unload the whole collection.
He’ll showcase the whole setup again during the next First Friday festivities, on Dec. 2, and then he’ll turn his attention to the undoubtedly bittersweet chore of getting rid of it all.
He’ll keep just one train set. He was a child when he received it in 1953.
“I plan to keep one set and that’s all … just the one from the very beginning,” he said. ••
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Take a ride …
Fishtown’s Joe Sullivan will soon be selling his enormous collection of toy trains. Before then, he’s offering free tours of the collection and shows of his intricately detailed train display.
On Friday, Dec. 2, starting at about 5 p.m., Sullivan will open his home at 1811 Frankford Ave. to anyone eager to see some miniature, mechanical magic.